Maybe Tom Cruise would have had a bigger hit if he'd spent his movie shouting, "Show me the mummy!"
As it turned out, Cruise's "The Mummy" did about as poorly as pundits had predicted, settling for second place with just an estimated $32.2 million. (Week-old "Wonder Woman" earned nearly twice as much, an estimated $57.2 million.) Cruise's "Mummy" opened lower than any of Brendan Fraser's three "Mummy" movies -- it's opening was less than even The Rock's spinoff, "The Scorpion King."
Its debut also falls well below what a $125 million movie needs to open with in order to break even domestically over the course of its run. And it doesn't bode well for the "Dark Universe" franchise Universal is using the film to launch. Still, this result wasn't a huge surprise. Indeed, it reinforces several lessons that the box office has been teaching us all year. Let's use "The Mummy" to unwrap six of them.
1. You Can't Force a Franchise Down Audience's Throats
Studios want Marvel's success, they just don't want to wait for it or due the legwork audiences expect to earn it.
After the box office successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every Hollywood studio wants a universe. But universes tend to evolve organically. Willing one into being is a tricky thing to pull off, even if you're working from familiar and popular characters, as Warner Bros. discovered last month with "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword."
In the case of Universal's Dark Universe, this is the third time in the last 13 years that the studio has attempted to generate a universe of new films based on its classic monster-movie properties. Hasn't worked out well so far, unless you're one of the handful of moviegoers with fond memories of "Van Helsing" or "Dracula Untold." Yes, there is (limited) potential for the future Dark Universe installments, including an "Invisible Man" with Johnny Depp, a likely "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" starring Russell Crowe's "Mummy" character, and a "Bride of Frankenstein" from "Beauty and the Beast" director Bill Condon (whose deep understanding of Universal's old Frankenstein movies is clear from his 1998 drama "Gods and Monsters").
But its still not clear what these monster tales have to do with one another, aside from being based on the studio's old intellectual property. That's not a good enough reason for moviegoers to appreciate the Dark Universe as a brand.
2. Horror Isn't Always an Easy Sell
Already this year, we've seen M. Night Shyamalan resurrect his career with "Split," and we've seen "Get Out" surprise everyone by becoming a massive hit with its unlikely blend of horror and social satire.
At the same time, we've seen established horror and action-horror franchises ("Rings," "Underworld: Blood Wars," "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter") stall without reaching $30 million domestically. Even this weekend, we saw critics go wild for "It Comes at Night" (it scored an 86 percent "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes) only to find that audiences hated it (they gave it a D at CinemaScore), resulting in a premiere estimated at only $6.0 million, about 40 percent below what the independent horror film was expected to earn. The short version is: outside of producer Jason Blum, no one seems to know which scary movies audiences will buy and which ones they'll avoid.
3. Timing Is Everything
Even with a female mummy, Universal's monster movie didn't have anywhere near the girl-power quotient of "Wonder Woman." It was a given that the gauze-wrapped stiff would have stiff competition from the DC heroine, but "Wonder Woman" has proven to have stronger legs than even Warner Bros. hoped for.
Most superhero movies drop more than 50 percent in their second weekend, but after last weekend's record-smashing $103 million debut, "Wonder Woman" fell just 45 percent this weekend -- one the best-ever drops for a comic book movie. Plus, Cruise's would-be blockbuster also had to face off against the more family-friendly "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie" (the cartoon took in an estimated $12.3 million in its second week) and the still-strong "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" (which grabbed another estimated $6.2 million in its sixth week). So the general PG-13 audience "The Mummy" was going for had a lot of other options, most of them better reviewed. And more worth their time and money.
4. Stop Making Bad Movies, Hollywood
Yeah, about those reviews: "The Mummy" has a deserved 17 percent "Rotten" at RT. The new school of thought is that, while few young moviegoers read reviews, their aggregate scores compiled by RT can still scare potential ticketbuyers, especially when those low scores are presented at online points of purchase like Fandango. Unlike "It Comes at Night," audiences tended to agree with critics about "The Mummy," judging by the meh B- grade moviegoers gave it at CinemaScore.
5. Star Power Has Limits
As Depp discovered with the new "Pirates," not even returning to your most celebrated role guarantees you a stellar premiere. So it is with Cruise, who's had a hard time over the past decade or so luring American audiences to any movie that doesn't have "Mission: Impossible" in the title.
Yes, male action stars seem to enjoy longer career runs than ever now, but Cruise and co-star Russell Crowe, like Depp, are in their 50s now, and time marches on.
6. "The Mummy" Is More for International Audiences, But That Likely Won't Save It
The domestic flop has earned $141.8 million abroad, more than four times what it's earned in the states. (But the film still may not break even with the help of international fans.)
Cruise, like Depp, continues to be immensely popular among foreign audiences, which is why "The Mummy," "Pirates," and many other releases this year are making some studio accountants happy despite low domestic grosses.
If you, an American ticketbuyer, didn't think much of "The Mummy," well, you were never the target audience anyway. So don't think for a moment that the new monster movie's dollar shortage in North America is going to put the slightest dent in Cruise's career, but the jury is still out on whether or not we ever see this Dark Universe happen at the scale -- and success -- Universal wishes.